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Is obesity a disability?

In terms of Social Security disability, obesity is no longer considered by itself to be a severe condition that would prevent you from working. However, when coupled with another condition, an individual’s weight can play a major effect on whether they are approved for benefits.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines obesity as a chronic and complex disease that is characterized by an excessive accumulation of body fat. The SSA uses the National Institute of Health’s guidelines to classify weight and obesity in adults according to their Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is the ratio of an individual’s height and weight. For an individual with a BMI of 30.0 they are recognized into three levels. Level 1 includes BMI’s of 30.0-34.9. Level II includes BMI’s of 35.0-39.9. Level III is termed “extreme” obesity and is any BMI of 40.0 or above. This category presents the greatest health risks for an individual.

There is perhaps an obvious connection between an individual with extreme obesity and a physical condition that would limit an individual’s capacity for weight-bearing functions, such as standing and walking. However, there are other effects that may not be as obvious but just as harmful, including an individual’s interactions with the public, coworkers or even supervisors. Obesity is considered in determining both an individual’s exertion capabilities and their mental capabilities.

Social Security has submitted a ruling (SSR 02-1p), which explains how they consider an individual’s obesity in conjunction with their claim for disability benefits. The foundation of this ruling is an acknowledgment that people suffering from extreme obesity suffer from a potentially disabling condition.

How would this ruling work?

If you have a BMI of 44.5, which puts you in the “extreme” obesity category and you suffer from bilateral knee osteoarthritis and lumbar degenerative disc disease, you will most likely struggle with standing for prolonged periods of time, ambulating, and even lifting or bending over. There are specific disability “Listings” that discuss the severity of an individual’s impairments involving weight-bearing functions along with the lumbar spine. Remember, the disability listings are conditions in which SSA feels if severe enough are disabling on their own. In this case, the individual’s extreme obesity likely compounds and exacerbates his/her bilateral knee pain and lower back pain such that these impairments would equal the applicable listings.

So while being overweight in and of itself will not be considered disabling, oftentimes it will be combined with other physical or psychological conditions to get you to a finding of disability. If you are significantly overweight and struggling to go to work every day, call an experienced Social Security disability attorney for advice on whether to apply for disability benefits or not. Having an attorney help you with your disability claim is always recommended. But in this instance, there are a lot of legal arguments that need to be made, which only an experienced disability attorney would know how to do. 

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